People have always talked about the need for female role models, and until recently I didn’t understand how this was meant to help.
Why would I want a female math teacher to be my role model, when that bit of selection power might be used to get someone with more math skill? It seemed maybe insulting that people think I care so much about my femalehood that I prefer to copy someone else who shares it than someone who is chosen solely for being good at math. And if people use role models to decide how to behave, isn’t saying that female role models are important the same as saying either that women should behave differently from men, or that women are somehow unable to copy the behavior of men? Doesn’t it lead to more sexism if you suggest to people in this way that their gender is a defining feature and more important than e.g. math skill?
I now have a model of the potential need for female role models that makes sense to me, though I’m not especially confident in it. It may also be completely obvious to everyone other than me. Anyway, here it is.
Society has many stereotyped roles. The kind teacher. The cool businessman. The class clown. The twenty-something trying to figure out what they should do. The nerd.
My understanding of these is this. If you fit kind of near one of these roles, people will see you as being in it. In the same way that if you write a thing that is kind of like an ‘A’, people will read it as an ‘A’. If someone learns that you program a lot and enjoy playing board games, they think ‘ah, a nerd’ and then interpret more ambiguous characteristics to fit this role. For instance whether your clothing style is edgy or oblivious.
When people meet you, they observe your most striking characteristics, and try to figure out which kinds of person those characteristics mean that you are, from this set of known kinds of people. If your characteristics are striking but don’t seem to fit any known kinds of people, the observer will be confused and curious. Maybe you will get to have your own new role, or ‘weirdo’ is quite a large catchall.
People communicate who they are by either fitting known roles, or riffing on them: sort of fitting, but with unique flourishes that set them apart as individuals. Much like how fiction plays off ideas that exist in culture already, assuming the reader knows about the famous stories and common associations. Subtly varying on the themes or consciously subverting them, as commentary on what has come before, and to absorb the meanings from it so that much can be compactly implied. It is harder to write good fiction which sits in an uncharted vacuum, making use of alien characters, norms and ideas. Similarly it is easier to say who you are with clothes and policy preferences and so on, with a common language of kinds of people you might be gesturing at.
Most people don’t mean to fit in one simple stereotype, each person constructs a careful cocktail of them. They usually don’t mean to be a maximally stereotypical philosopher. However they might mean to be a modern freelance formal epistemologist with neuroscience roots and liberal values.
When people are deciding what to do, they often think of the roles available, and choose the one(s) that most appeal to them, and use that to guide their action. Sometimes this is obvious: few people choose a side in a policy debate without implicitly glancing at what a good liberal or conservative would do. But also, if they are choosing how to teach a class, they might have a few images of different kinds of teachers they could be, and select one they most want to try to emulate, rather than choosing their own behavior from scratch. For instance, they might choose the ‘stern but quietly caring’ teacher role. They can imagine what such a teacher would do, so then they do that.
This has the advantages of both being easier for the teacher, and more understandable to others. Parents and students know what to expect – they can readily recognize the stern but quietly caring teacher, and already know about her character.
So, there are all these stereotyped roles you can have. What does this have to do with gender? A lot of the roles are specific to certain kinds of people. You just can’t be the gentle giant if you are only five feet tall. You can’t be the village idiot if you are smart. And you can’t be the sort of person who twiddles their moustache if you can’t grow a moustache. In fact lots of roles come with a gender. The eccentric old professor who smokes a pipe in class can’t really be a woman, or if she is, then that is a notable characteristic, and she is the female eccentric old professor, which is different.
Growing up I socialized little, and the people I could most relate to were probably middle aged guys who wrote books. However our gender and age genuinely didn’t occur to me as relevant. I figured I could grow up to be Dr Who or Einstein or Dirk Gently.
Now I think I can’t really. And I can’t grow up to be Leo Szilard or an absent-minded professor, or an American gentleman who wanders foreign coffee shops and writes in his journal in the evening light, or even just the nerd. If I want to be a nerd, I have to be a girl nerd. Which is not the same character at all, in popularly imagined stereotype-world. If the Terminator had been a woman, would it be the same story? If Sherlock or James Bond were women, that would be an intentional and meaningful choice.
There are lots of roles that men can’t have too. It is hard for a man to be a nanny or nurse or ballet dancer, without being a ‘MALE ballet dancer’ or whatever. I don’t think that men actually have more roles. I also doubt that men’s versions of more feminine roles are more flattering than women’s versions of more masculine roles. However I wonder if men have a better selection of appealing roles on the whole. It is better to be the absentminded professor than the old school maam, or the spinster cat lady. It is better to be the class clown than the conscientious girl. It is better to be the nerd than the nerd girl. It is better to be the scientist than the woman in science. While it’s also better to be the nanny than the male nanny, there is arguably less demand for being some kind of nanny than some kind of scientist.
So, it’s not that I might not know how to do math well unless I see a woman do it, it is that if there aren’t women doing math around, there might not seem to be a female math-doing role at all, and as a young person finding my place in the world I might be hesitant to explore uninhabited territory in kinds-of-people-space. I think the hope is that if there are enough females doing math, there won’t even be some kind of ‘female mathematician’ role, there will just be a ‘mathematician’ role, and it won’t be attached to gender, like ‘environmentalist’ or ‘conservative’ are not. The reason you might want female role models is not to flesh out a female-specific role, but to illustrate clearly that the usual role can be filled by males or females, since many roles are not.
So the female role model is not to show the female that she can do math. It is to show other people that she can fill a mathematical role, and to show her that other people know this.